Review by Amb. (ret.) William A. Rugh
America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East by Hugh Wilford, New York: Basic Books, ISBN;13: 978-0465019656, 2013-14, pp.384, $21.45 (Amazon Hardcover), $16.15 (Kindle).
History professor Hugh Wilford has presented the story of U.S. relations with the Middle East, primarily during the Eisenhower administration, by focusing on the role of America’s clandestine operations during that period. The basic features of the official relationship and even of some of CIA’s covert activities have been well known for some time. But Wilford has uncovered a wealth of detail about what CIA operatives did and how President Eisenhower and Foster and Allen Dulles supported them.
Although Wilford failed to get access to CIA files for this book, he found rich treasures of information on CIA activities in the Middle East in the personal papers of some participants, and even in their own kiss-and-tell books. Wilford’s main focus is on three key players, namely Kim and Archie Roosevelt and Miles Copeland, and he and quotes many of their own words, and comments by others about them.
Kim and Archie were cousins and they were grandsons of President Theodore Roosevelt, and that family gave them entry into an elite world. Allen Dulles and other prominent American Republicans were family friends, and the Roosevelt name opened doors in the Middle East. Both wrote about their adventures. The third prominent player in Wilford’s narrative was Miles Copeland, who came from a humbler background but he too developed into a senior CIA operative by virtue of his intelligence, charm and ambition. Copeland also wrote and spoke publicly about his CIA activities but Wilford notes that historians must be careful to check his writings against other sources because Copeland was prone to invent stories for dramatic effect and self-promotion. (I had heard about this from CIA friends at the time and was pleased that Wilford picked it up. Those friends also confirmed that Wilford basically got the facts right, with the exception of some details.)
Wilford argues that Kim and Archie Roosevelt were not only inspired by T.R. to a life of active adventure, but that they were also brought up at Groton and Harvard to seek a patriotic role in public service. Kim was inspired, too, by Rudyard Kipling’s novel “Kim” (Kipling himself was a friend of his father’s), that was set against the background of what was called the “great game”, a rivalry between the British and Russian empires. And Copeland was fascinated by game theory, then in vogue, and applied it to international relations, later writing a book and creating a board game he called “The Game of Nations”; thus Wilford’s title.
When Wilford tells the now familiar story of CIA’s involvement in the 1953 events in Iran that saw the shah survive and Prime Minister Mossadegh removed from office, he gives the CIA team led by Kim Roosevelt some credit but concludes, along with other historians, that the real reason for the shah’s survival was that the army and other Iranian players were decisive in supporting him. Wilford explains however that CIA and the Eisenhower administration were so elated at the time that their clandestine Iran intervention was a huge success, that they were encouraged to try it again, in the Middle East and elsewhere, on the Iranian model. This was a false reading of 1953 that survived until the 1960s, and was completely debunked after the Iranians in their 1979 revolution used it as evidence of American unwanted intervention.
The CIA had already tried regime change in 1949 by encouraging Col. Husni Zaim to overthrow the Quwaiti government but that had failed due to a leak of the plot. But Kim’s perceived “success” in Iran in 1953 came just after the Free Officers took over in Egypt, so Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers turned to Kim and other CIA operatives to try to influence that new regime. While the ambassador Caffrey established relations with Naguib, who turned out to be a figurehead, CIA operatives met with Nasser in regular clandestine meetings and stayed in close contact with him as he emerged as the strongman and became president. Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers were obsessed with winning the Cold War in the Middle East, and they sought to develop Nasser as the key anti-Soviet Arab leader. They thought by offering him weapons he would make peace with Israel. They assigned CIA operatives the primary task of cultivating Nasser, and Kim Roosevelt did have some success at first in helping to settle a British-Egyptian dispute over Suez. But Nasser did not go along with Washington’s proposal to meet with Israeli leaders and work out a peace agreement. He was building his reputation as the leading Arab leader confronting the Israelis, and did not want to be seen as openly working with them. He upset Washington when he bought weapons from the Soviet bloc, consorted with non-aligned nations and extended recognition to China.
It is well known that these actions so angered Foster Dulles that he rescinded support for Aswan Dam funding and this led to Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. But the CIA Arabists thought this was a bad mistake when the Eisenhower administration decided to shift gears, and to try to undermine Nasser and cultivate other Arab leaders against him. Kim, Archie Miles and the others dutifully carried out instructions and tried clandestinely to influence leaders in Jordan (paying the king a monthly stipend), Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, but these efforts basically failed in an atmosphere of growing Arab support for Nasser in the region. Later, writing about their experiences, they criticized Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers for conflating Arab nationalism with Communism and failing to heed the advice of experts like them.
Wilford devotes several chapters to efforts by Kim Roosevelt throughout this period to find ways to educate the American public about the Arab world, hoping to develop a group of citizens who would support the building American-Arab relations. Kim was instrumental in helping to found the American Friends of the Middle East, a nominally private organization that had secret CIA funding until the CIA connection was revealed in a Ramparts article in 1967. As Wilford describes this aspect of the agency’s activities, Kim and other CIA Arabists were anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic, and they thought that it was in the American interest to build solid relations with Arabs and Muslims, who would be allies in the Cold War. This effort included involvement of the American Council on Judaism and the anti-Zionist Rabbi Elmer Berger, among others. The CIA effort to work with Nasser however collapsed over his confrontation with Israel that did not fit with Eisenhower’s focus on the Cold War, and Israeli supporters in America gained strength politically in the following years. So even AFME (and its reinvention as AMIDEAST) turned away from political advocacy in the U.S. to education and training in the Arab world.
Wilford notes that today, of course, because of the U.S. administration’s intense focus on combating Islamic extremism, and on dealing with various crises in the Arab world, the CIA’s mandate and its operations have shifted dramatically from what it tried to do in the Eisenhower years. But this book should be read by anyone interested in America’s involvement in the Middle East. It is very well researched; full of details not previously published, and tells us a lot about people who were a big part the U.S.-Mideast relationship of it in the past but who are not household names. Stephen Kinzer’s book “The Brothers”, that also came out in 2013, also deals with the world as seen by Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers, but Wilford provides a much more detailed look into the Middle Eastern part of that story, and deftly explores the motivations of the CIA professionals who were part of it.